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Advanced Uniform Fabrics

Written by Jim Zahrt

To the general public, the police uniform is a symbol of both protection and assurance of public order. But for law enforcement decision-makers, uniforms often present unique problems, and finding solutions may not always seem like a very orderly process.

Many departments make it a priority to ensure a professional appearance among officers seen by the public. They like the Class A uniform because it offers the impressive look that commands attention and breeds confidence among officers.

Officers handling active duties, however, often prefer the Class B uniform. The Class B uniform offers greater functionality during active wear with military-style features such as double seams for durability and rubberized waistbands for flexibility. In some cases, cargo pockets provide space that officers need to store their ever-expanding supply of equipment.

The ideal approach might be to have both types of uniforms available for officers. At official functions, or when working a parade or other celebratory public event, the Class A uniform provides a sense of tradition and dignity. On routine beat duty, the Class B uniform would be the choice. Unfortunately, tight budgets often mean that a choice has to be made between Class A and Class B uniforms, rather than purchasing both.

New uniform textiles, however, offer law enforcement agencies the opportunity to combine some features of both Class A and Class B uniforms, giving the patrol officer a more professional look along with the desired functionality. That’s possible because today’s uniform fabrics are engineered to be better than ever before. Less constricting and easier to clean, the uniforms of the 21st century are a quantum leap from those of just a few years ago.

Listening has been the key to making improvements and providing more options to the many employers who attire their workers in uniforms. Uniform service companies who rent, lease, and sell uniforms, provide assistance to customers that goes beyond simply providing them with garments, picking up dirty uniforms, washing them, and delivering clean ones. These companies also consult with clients to make sure that they are choosing the uniform fabrics that best meet their objectives and offer performance-related information about the latest textile technologies for workwear and soon-to-be-available options from textile manufacturers.

The Uniform & Textile Service Association (UTSA) is an international trade organization that represents these companies and works to convey information about new uniform textile options.

Wearability and Durability

Many law enforcement agencies have traditionally relied on polyester as the textile of choice for uniforms because of the fabric’s resistance to wrinkles and its soil release properties. But in warm weather, traditional polyester can really hold the heat, making it uncomfortable for more active officers and for those who move in and out of automobiles frequently.

Regional preferences have evolved to address the heat issue. For example, in warmer climates, many departments choose polyester/wool blends, or even 100% wool. Wool, which is very breathable on its own, breathes even better when combined with polyester in a uniform fabric weave.

Wool also helps create a very distinctive and professional uniform look that generates pride. Given the demands made on today’s law enforcement uniforms, however, it can be worthwhile to consider some of the other fabric options now available for uniform construction.

New textiles being introduced into the uniform marketplace have a great track record (pun intended) having already proven themselves in the athletic and outdoor recreation markets. Known as hydrophilic fabrics, they have become familiar to consumers under brand names such as Nike’s Dri-FIT and Patagonia’s Capilene.

The newest hydrophilic fabrics used in work apparel are 100 % polyester knits. These aren’t the hot, stiff polyesters of the 1970’s. These fabrics use spun yarns that give a truly cotton-like feel, creating soft garments that people like to wear. Not only comfortable, hydrophilic fabrics have been very well-received by athletes and outdoor enthusiasts in large part because of their moisture management systems.

Perspiration is moved away from the skin and then evaporates, enhancing comfort for very active workers and also providing odor resistance because, without available moisture, odor-causing bacteria can’t survive. This is a big improvement over 100% cotton, a fabric that can stay soaked and uncomfortable for hours.

Color-retention, durability, and wrinkle resistance of hydrophilic fabrics are as good as or better than the same properties in 65/35 cotton/polyester blends. Darker colors in particular have excellent color retention with this technology. Soil release properties built into hydrophilic uniform fabrics ensure that these new uniforms can be kept very clean.

The favorite of professional cyclists worldwide, these fabrics are perfect for bike patrol officers’ uniforms. Officers in other capacities should also like uniforms made from these comfortable and attractive fabrics.

State-of-the-art textile technologies also offer other useful features for today’s law enforcement uniforms. For example, it is possible to add a permanent finish to uniform fabric to make it water-repellant. This process can be combined with new vat-dying techniques to provide outstanding color retention. Fabric softeners should never be used when laundering treated fabrics.

In addition, up to an 8% mechanical stretch can be woven into many fabrics. The stretch provides flexibility and comfort that active workers in any field tend to prefer. The stretch can be made asymmetric, providing more stretch in one direction than another. A uniform service provider can discuss all of today’s fabric options to help you make the best choice of fabrics for your department.

Appearance, Functionality, and Security

The design of a uniform can also impact its potential to bridge the gap between the Class A, high-end look, and the Class B functionality. For example, cargo pockets can be designed with pleats for appearance only, without the expansion strip that allows them to billow out when filled. Although their storage capacity obviously is somewhat reduced without the expansion capability, the pockets maintain a neater appearance while still providing some convenient storage space. Alternatively, a stripe or piping on the outside of a cargo pocket can help tone down the pouchy look when a cargo pocket is filled.

At least one uniform fabric company has developed a process that allows customers to put their own logos, designs, and patterns directly onto the fabric, with more flexibility than yarn dying and superior colorfastness compared to printing. And furthermore, unlike printing, this process will not change the feel of the fabric. This new ability to easily incorporate logos and designs onto the fabric allows departments to create uniforms with brand identity and security in mind. The fabric supplier confines all custom designs so that no unauthorized parties may purchase fabric with your design or logo.

One group that has seen the value of this new fabric technology is the Mexican police. In a program spanning nearly three years, fabric that integrates the insignia of Mexico’s police force is being incorporated into key pieces of the police uniform, such as the pocket flaps and shoulder epaulets of the shirt and the belt loops of the pants. The fabric prevents counterfeit uniforms from entering the market and provides a sense of security for citizens as the uniforms make Mexico’s city police easy to identify.

Uniforms for Generations X and Y

Law enforcement uniform trends are also changing partly in response to new generations of officers entering departments. Younger officers have grown up accustomed to clothing that is both casual and functional. This means that the demand for functionality will likely increase, not decrease, as we move further into the 21st century.

In addition, with many women among the ranks of young officers, the demand for female-friendly uniforms is growing. Today’s uniforms can be cut to a female silhouette, creating a design that affords the female officer a more professional look and greater comfort.

Want to know more about how all of this can work for you? A uniform service company can help you identify both design elements and uniform textiles that meet the specific appearance standards, comfort, and functionality needs of your department. Now it’s easier than ever for your officers to look professional and be comfortable while doing their jobs. Visit UTSA to learn more or to find a UTSA member by location.

Jim Zahrt is director of marketing at the Uniform & Textile Service Association. He can be contacted at zahrt@utsa.com. The UTSA would like to thank Galls—An Aramark Company and Milliken & Company for their assistance with information for this article.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005

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